'The Big C' Season 3 Preview: Prepare to Meet Cathy's Alter Ego

Executive producer Jenny Bicks discusses Paul's fate, how Cathy's alter ego Alexis will help in her search for joy and teases what's ahead, including a season finale in Puerto Rico.
David M. Russell/SHOWTIME
"The Big C's" Laura Linney

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's Season 3 premiere of The Big C, which was released early online.]

When Season 3 of Showtime's dramedy The Big C returns Sunday, three weeks will have passed since Paul (Oliver Platt) suffered a heart attack and flatlined in the second season finale. With each season following a stage of grief, Laura Linney's Cathy is poised to explore bargaining as she receives surprising news about last season's clinical trial.

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This season will find Cathy and company exploring the frailty of life and coping with both Paul's survival and death as she takes on an alter-ego in a quest to find joy. Elsewhere, Cathy and Paul's son, Adam, will deal with his family's fragile status by exploring religion.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunner Jenny Bicks to discuss how the series has changed under new Showtime topper David Nevins, how Paul's fate will impact everyone and what viewers can expect from Susan Sarandon's "joyologist" during the third season of The Big C.

The Hollywood Reporter: How has the show changed under new Showtime entertainment topper David Nevins?
Jenny Bicks:
We're 10 episodes instead of 12 and he's been really supportive of what this show is; he's challenged us in great ways to push beyond the boundaries of what we think we can do. He's allowed us to take this into a more surprising area for this season. He's been very supportive with what this show is, so it's not that he came and wanted to change the DNA of the show. What he has allowed us to do is take some real chances and that has led to a more surprising show.

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Last season ended on a cliffhanger. Was Paul's fate an easy one to decide?
We always knew that we wanted. The show itself plays with life and death and we wanted to play with the idea with Paul having now seen death in a way that Cathy did and having a very different kind of view about it and explore what that does to Cathy to be up against somebody saying maybe it's the best thing that ever happened. He's seen this light and he realizes he doesn't have to be afraid anymore. It's beyond being irritating for Cathy; it shines a light on how is she going to address how she feels about life and death now. We never really wanted to kill him and I'm thrilled at the number of people that thought he was dead. We feel like we did our job.

Paul's survival changes everyone. How will his near-death experience impact Cathy?
She's allowing herself to spread her wings and take some chances she wouldn't have taken before that may not be healthy for her. She's going to go to a seminar with a woman named Joy (Susan Sarandon) who's a "joyologist," whose job is to help people find their joy. She's a combination of these women that are like, "I'm always perfect and I can get through anything," and who think they can give you control of your own universe. Basically you can control whether you get sick or stay well. By going to this seminar, Cathy discovers that she hasn't really been in touch with what her joy is about and it sets her off on a journey for the season that will be very eye opening for everybody in terms of what joy means to her and how to be really happy.

We've seen in the premiere and promos that Cathy takes on this alter ego of Alexis Bertrand. Who is Alexis Bertrand, and how long will she be around?
(Laughs.) Alexis is the name of my assistant and that's why I picked that name. We actually thought it fun to pick a name that is a name that Cathy would have picked when she was 12 that's like Alexis from Dallas. She is a woman who is not afraid who Cathy has created who's getting her pilot's license and who lost her husband a couple months prior. She can relax, let loose, laugh and not be afraid. Cathy has been afraid for a long time and Alexis isn't really afraid of anything. Alexis is around for the whole season.

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Cathy is on this journey to see what joy means to her and that she's got this alter ego who's very clear on what joy means to her. How are those two halves of Cathy really going to clash this season?
Alexis gives Cathy the strength to pursue her joy. Cathy has had a lot of pent-up rage and anger for a long time, and Alexis allows her to bring that out. You'll see that come out more because she's not going to take it lying down anymore; anything that stands in the way of her joy, it's going to be run over pretty quick. Alexis allows her to give life a kick in the ass.

How will Paul change?
Paul is going to start blogging and he's going to start to become a motivational speaker. As he really grows this season and learns who he is, that's really going to challenge Cathy because the power has always been with her. She's always been the one in control in that relationship and kind of the bigger presence. Paul has been there for her and we'll explore what happens when his life becomes bigger than hers. It complicates things a lot.

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How will Adam handle his parents' fragility?
Yes, he just found that Christian rabbit hole. He starts by feeling the fragility of both of his parents. They're both not being good parents right now; they're on their own journeys and he's left feeling like both of his parents could drop dead at any time. So he seeks solace in a bible group. It's going to put him up against Cathy in terms of what she thinks he should believe and what he does believe. He believes that God has a plan for everybody, so there is a lot of love that he finds in it even though it's really discomforting to Cathy because she not a born-again.

How will Sean be there for Adam?
Sean isn't going to stay on his meds, but he's going to hit some life challenges. He's going to be as good a guardian [to Adam]. He's always been good friends with Adam, and Adam feels much more comfortable with him than he does with his parents because he's doesn't feel judged. As Adam gets deeper into religion, he's going to find himself more at odds with both of his parents and turn to Sean, who is going to be really able to comfort him.

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Sean has a new rival coming in this season in Victor Garber's character, Willy.
Sean is going to find that he is really good at phone sex and is going to become very entrepreneurial with it, which is going to cause a little trouble for Cathy, who has made him Adam's guardian. Sean is going to have a lot of fun and he'll also be challenged because he's got a job and is back on the grid for the first time. It's Sean, but it's Sean on medication and so he's much more stable but yet he's still running his gay phone sex line.

Sean and Andrea have always been the black sheep of the family. Will their stories overlap?
Sean will be in the school for a bit as the janitor. They understand that they're both the oddballs of the family and they have a good sense of humor about it. They're able to look from the outside at the craziness of this dysfunctional family that they're in and they will overlap. Andrea is going to become closer with Adam, but there is a nice moment in Episode 3, which is Valentine's Day, where she and Sean end up on a date and it's very touching. They're very compatible as friends.

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There's always been a lot of good-natured ribbing between Adam and Andrea. Could we see that grow to something more this season?
They're always going to be ribbing each other. They're really brother and sister now and they're good at that. It's very easy for both of them to give each other shit and to have fun doing it. In the end, they're also really supportive of each other. Gabe and Gabby are such good friends in real life and have become really close. They really are like brother and sister off the set, too.

How does this season's bargaining theme fit with Cathy's search for joy?
The thing we're really fighting with is the idea that once you're dealing with a really acute illness, you're really looking at the short-term. Now that she has a slightly better prognosis, it's the first time she's able to stop and go, "OK, I can see my life in a year maybe or two years." That brings her moments of passion which is, "What do I want my life to be now? I'm not just trying to get better for next week; I have to really look at my life and see how to make it better." That's hard sometimes so it's easier to deal with the acute problems first and then the bigger issues. For Cathy, it's about if I could figure out what my joy is, if I can figure out what makes me happy, in a way I could live forever. The bargain you make is if I do that then I could find immortality. Can she find that? She tries really hard.

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How do Cathy and company wind up in Puerto Rico? They've always talked about taking a big trip but have yet to actually make it happen.
This is kind of a do-over. It's because of an opportunity that Paul has for business that brings them down here and they all go as a family because they need a break. Sean and Andrea go and everybody's together. A lot can happen, right? I think the fun of having a shorter season for us is that each episode is really packed; there's a lot of stuff going on all the time so there's no time to really breathe as a viewer.

What are you most looking forward to seeing this season? The third season of The Big C premieres Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on Showtime.

E-mail: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit